Clue on Winter Park philosophy may lie in trees

For a not-so-subtle clue on where Winter Park could be headed as it considers whether to protect historic landmarks from demolition, look no further than another forsaken casualty of the bulldozer: the trees.

Late last year Winter Park commissioners chopped up the city's tree preservation ordinance.

A good pruning would have been welcomed. The tree ordinance was too dense with expensive penalties.

But the protection for Winter Park's tree canopy was hacked off at the base.

The tree canopy is — or at least was — sacrosanct in this affluent suburban hamlet, along with brick streets, clean lakes and Fido's right to lap up doggy ice cream while his owner brunches at a sidewalk table on Park Avenue.

Stately oaks, elms and sycamores are part of what makes Winter Park feel like Winter Park.

For how much longer is anyone's guess.

Winter Parkers who want to remove healthy trees to build a new house or add on to an existing one must either pay into a tree compensation fund, plant replacement trees or some combination of the two.

The revised ordinance dramatically reduces how much property owners must pay, and the number of replacement trees that are required.

The official line from Winter Park officials is that the rules were revised to encourage people to plant new trees at a time when many of the city's lush laurel oaks are reaching the end of their life spans.

It's true that the trees that grew from a laurel oak planting spree in the 1950s are now reaching the end of their lives and will need to be replaced.

But this ordinance doesn't go far enough to replace them.

Everybody would likely feel a lot better if the city would acknowledge what seems to be the driving force behind this change — an attempt to make life easier on developers or property owners who prefer to clear their lots and start from scratch.

Sound familiar? Those are the same themes behind a heated debate about historic preservation in the city. On Monday the city commission will begin to discuss whether it should begin protecting historic homes to avoid another brouhaha like the one playing out now over the Capen House or, a decade earlier, Casa Feliz.

"This really comes down to a really simple issue and that's property rights versus the rights of the community," Marc Hagle, who established the Winter Park Live Oak Fund, told commissioners during the tree debate last year.

Variations of that quote were repeated often during the recent debate about the Capen House.

The parallels are striking.

Property rights won during the fight over the trees.

The new rules are so lax that nobody has challenged them. The Tree Preservation Board hasn't met since December.

"The penalty now is just to plant two trees so if they wanted to appeal it they could, but who would do that?" asked Phil Eschbach, a member of the board. "There's no reason for us to meet anymore because there's no reason to argue."

It's a remarkable change for a city whose tree protection was once legendary — some builders were known to pay $30,000 or more into a tree replacement fund.

"We would get cases where someone would buy a lot, tear the house down and want to build another one and say, 'These trees are in the way,'" said Phil Eschbach, a member of the Tree Preservation Board. "And we would say, 'They weren't in the way of the other house.' We didn't have a lot of sympathy for that."

The commission doesn't appear to have much sympathy for that kind of devotion to the tree canopy. Next we'll see how much understanding they have for historic preservation.

bkassab@tribune.com or 407-420-5448

CHICAGO

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